For Peak Performance, Think Outside the Gym
Mark Sisson

A faded blue knee sleeve that’s fraying at the edges. Worn, broken-in belts supple as a newborn calf’s inner thigh. Scattered daylight filtered through airborne chalk dust. The metallic zing of barbells whipping around, the triumphant dumping of cleans, jerks, and snatches like so many aftershocks. It’s a romantic image, isn’t it - the weight room? For many, it’s where life sorts itself out, where things just make sense. A place of solace. For others, it’s just a place to get big and strong and fast. For most of us, it’s both.

Whatever your intent in the weight room, you’re going there to get better at lifting heavy things. And there’s more to getting better at lifting heavy things than lifting progressively heavier things with progressively better technique. I’m not just talking about what you eat, either. I’m talking about all the other ways in which our lives and our environments affect our physiological response to stressors.

I’m best known for the Primal Blueprint way of eating, which I discuss extensively on my blog, Mark's Daily Apple, and in my books--the animals and plants that formed the basis of the diet that shaped our physiologies and metabolisms. Everyone eats something, though. Even if it’s not “optimal,” it will provide caloric energy and enough macronutrients and micronutrients to keep you alive and able to move and maybe even lift. Too many of us are completely missing out on an entire other range of biologically appropriate environmental inputs, and this absence can have disastrous consequences on not only our health and happiness, but also our performance in the gym.

Let’s go over some of the deficits, how they affect our performance, and how to correct them:

Getting Sun

Whatever our Paleolithic ancestors were doing with their days, they weren’t spending them indoors protected from the sun. Depending on the climate, location, and time of year, pre-domesticated humans spent a decent amount of time in the sun--enough that our physiologies are designed around producing a compound vital to our health from UVB light: vitamin D. You’ve probably heard of the various health benefits of vitamin D, which include regulation of bone mineral density, cancer protection, and immune system activation. All good, important stuff.

While having brittle bones, getting sick a lot, and having cancer are detriments to your lifting, they aren’t the only thing vitamin D is doing to promote strong performance. Our bodies require vitamin D to produce steroid hormones, including the testosterone that’s so vital to physical performance, recovery, and muscular hypertrophy. Observational studies have shown that low vitamin D levels correlate to low levels of testosterone, and controlled trials show that giving vitamin D supplements to correct a deficiency also boosts testosterone production. Sure enough, low vitamin D is also linked to lower levels of muscular strength and hypogonadism.

The best way to correct a vitamin D deficiency is to get actual, real sunlight on exposed skin. For light-skinned people, ten to 30 minutes around noon are plenty. For dark-skinned people, closer to an hour may be necessary. If no sun is available, vitamin D3 supplements definitely work, but the advantage of sunlight is that the dosage is autoregulated. You can’t overdose on vitamin D from sun. You’ll just get burned and then remove yourself from the situation before that could ever happen.

As for the whole skin cancer thing, that’s pretty easy to avoid:

1. Don’t get a sunburn. Shoot for a healthy glow. Put some clothes on or find shade when you need to get out of the sun (sunblock will also block vitamin D production).

2. Avoid processed seed oils high in omega-6 fats. Keep overall polyunsaturated fat intake on the low side while favoring saturated fat from foods like butter and coconut oil.

3. Eat tomatoes, shrimp, and drink green tea. Compounds in all three foods (lycopene, astaxanthin, and green tea polyphenols, respectively) have been shown to increase the skin’s resistance to UV rays.

Being Outside

Our capacity to resist and respond to stress is finite, and whether you’re talking nutritional stress, psychological stress, or environmental stress, stressors all use the same currency. What that means is losing your job reduces your ability to recover from a set of squats. Breaking up with your girlfriend hurts your snatch. Stress, whatever the source, kills your lifting. It sets you up for injuries and reduces your performance. Everyone knows they need to get enough sleep, get a handle on their personal relationships, and pay their bills on time, but there’s another stressor that we aren’t considering, a hidden source of stress that, like all other types, hampers our ability to recover: civilization.

I’m not saying we go out and live in the woods, forsaking all our technological advances. I’m just suggesting that city and suburban life may represent an “unrelenting stressor” that we need to mitigate if we want to perform at our best. Thanks to emerging research, scientists are beginning to consider urban living a significant source of stress. But, because many of us grew up in this environment, we don’t consider its impact on our stress reserves.

There’s a pretty simple way to mitigate the stress of civilization, though. Japanese studies on “forest therapy” confirm that spending time in wooded areas exerts a powerful anti-stress response, lowering urinary adrenaline, blood and salivary cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate. Forest therapy also improves immune function, increasing the activity of tumor-suppressing natural killer cells.

It makes sense when you think about how we used to live on this planet. We evolved without walls, skyscrapers, traffic, billboards, manicured lawns and LED screens. Is it so far fetched to think that being surrounded by these things without a break could represent a major, chronic stressor? It might be that our bodies are attuned to nature, and nature is our default, our “home.”

If that’s true--and the evidence is accumulating to suggest it is--all of us living in cities and suburbs are operating at a subtle deficit. We may not notice it, and we may even be performing really, really well despite it, but it’s likely that our baseline resistance against stress is somewhat lower than it has to be.

Questions remain about whether civilized life is stressful, nature is actively anti-stress, and other chicken and egg problems. Just take the time to spend some of your time outside and you’ll feel and lift better. Who cares if it’s because you reduced exposure to a stressor or increased exposure to an anti-stress agent?

It doesn’t even have to be for long, or even in deep wilderness. Go for a hike, have a picnic in the park, go to the beach. Just get outside and ideally see some green growing things.

If you absolutely can’t get out of city limits, just get some fresh air. Do some yard work; go for a walk around the block. Even looking at nature scenes, or listening to nature sounds, can have some of the same effects on our stress levels. In one study, participants spent 20 minutes simply looking at a forest scene and experienced lower salivary cortisol and reduced indicators of sympathetic nervous system activation (pulse rate, adrenaline, and blood pressure).

Once, twice, or maybe even three times a year, go for an extended stay in the outdoors. Go backpacking, camping for a few days, or even just vacation to a quiet seaside area. Use these getaways as “resets”--a way to return home and get back to baseline. Forest therapy studies have shown that these nature trips can have lasting effects on stress levels, with a single trip causing effects to persist for up to a month.

Constant low-level activity

If there’s one thing the human body is meant to do, it’s to move frequently a slow pace. All through history and prehistory, humans were constantly moving around. They were walking to find water, stalk prey, or forage for food. They were literally walking across continents. For most of time, work meant labor--actual physical exertion. Now we sit on couches, chairs, ergonomically designed Swiss balls. And it’s only until very recently that the majority of people--regardless of social class--could sit in a carriage and be driven around (whether by horse or combustion engine) without exerting themselves. Too much sitting and not enough movement is antithetical to our physiologies.

Much has been made of the negative metabolic effects all this excess sitting can have on us, resulting in earlier mortality and a greater incidence of metabolic syndrome, but I’m also concerned with the effect not moving has on our mobility. Sitting down all day (especially hunched over a computer) shortens hip flexors, tightens calves and heel cords, and contributes toward chronic internal rotation of the shoulders and poor thoracic mobility. Simply put, sitting around changes how your joints work and makes an essential human movement pattern--the squat--much harder than it should be.

Being an active couch potato doesn’t quite cut it. It’s better than doing nothing at all, but studies show that exercising for an hour a day isn’t sufficient to counter the negative health effects of sitting for ten, and lots of slow movement spread out is healthier than infrequent bouts of moderate intensity. I strongly suspect the same holds true for the effect of sitting on mobility.

Integrating movement throughout your day keeps your joints “fresh” and lubricated, rather than stiff, and reduces the time you need to warm up.

Use a standing workstation. Barring that, take frequent, short breaks from sitting. At least once an hour, stand up and walk around, pump out a few squats, do some shoulder dislocates, and generally move every joint through its full range of motion.

Begin your day--every day--with a gentle movement session. I’m a big fan of Greg Everett’s Russian baby maker stretch right after waking up. I also find a 10 or 15-minute walk, preferably outdoors, gets things moving.

Work movement into your everyday activities. If you’re brushing your teeth, do so while squatting or lunging.

Going Barefoot

The cool thing about humans is that even though we can do long division, think about our place in the universe, program a week’s worth of meals, solve complex problems using logic, and perform other tasks indicative of high intelligence, we also retain the ability to perform hundreds of essential calculations on the subconscious level. For example, we don’t have to tell our pancreas to secrete enough insulin to deal with that food we just ate because the pancreas just does it without telling us. We generally don’t have to remind ourselves to breath. And, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to think about not rolling our ankles or tripping over our own feet. We should be able to glide gracefully across the ground.

Shoes get in the way, though. Think about it: we spend most of the day connected to the ground via our feet. Our feet, by virtue of their direct connection to the ground, tell our nervous systems what’s going on, where we’re going, what we’re standing on, how stable the ground is, how sharp and potentially injurious these rocks are, and so on. When you cover your feet with rubber, you’re covering up one of the most sensitive, nerve-dense areas of our bodies and giving up a lot of spatial awareness in the process. You’re basically blindfolding yourself.

The increased proprioceptive awareness gained while walking, running, hiking, etc. in a barefoot state generally carries over to the shoed state. What this means is that by occasionally acting like a dirty hippy on your off time, you can improve your overall awareness of how your entire body interacts with space-time--even when wearing weight lifting shoes. This will have huge implications for your lifting and overall athletic performance.

Don’t worry. This is not a plea for barefooted Olympic lifting. I don’t expect to see any Vibrams on the medal stand anytime soon. This is just a recommendation that folks spend more time without shoes, preferably moving around on natural ground, in order to improve their overall proprioceptive awareness, an awareness that will carry over to everything else you do.

If you found any of this helpful, check out my latest book, The Primal Connection, where I explore how paying attention to our ancestral environmental influences can affect our health, happiness, and stress levels just as much as focusing on our diet and exercise.

Greg Everett May 1 2013 11:01 am
Great article. As someone who gets stuck inside a gym and office all day at least 6 days a week, I can definitely feel the difference when I do manage to spend some time outside. I also feel infinitely better physically when I train twice daily rather than once, or even if I just spend a few minutes earlier in the day doing some mobility work and the like.
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